There are pockets of magic in this Christmas promenade show, which will make you feel young, naive and hopeful; beautifully crafted scenes that encourage you to look deep inside yourself and find something kind and pure. But there are also moments when it feels like the adverts have come on, the remote control is bust – and there is nothing you can do but sit and suffer in silence.
The last two shows by Look Left Look Right (both directed by Mimi Poskitt and written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Katie Lyons) have left me feeling a little uncomfortable. ‘Above and Beyond’ took place in the 5 star Corinthia Hotel and was the end-product of an artist-in-residence competition. The show was clever and occasionally enchanting but it also felt artistically compromised. We were shown some lovely snippets of theatre but, above all, we received a stellar tour of a 5 star venue.
This latest show, as sparky and imaginative as it is in places, feels similarly compromised. The programme reads: ‘Look Left Look Right and Covent Garden present Once Upon a Christmas’ and it’s hard to say where the advert ends and the artistic endeavor begins. Some of the advertising is understandable and well integrated, but other moments feel shoe-horned in and seriously threaten the integrity and power of this production.
The self-contained opening is cheeky and fairly convincing. A seriously narked Head Elf informs us that Cinderella and Prince Charming are on the verge of breaking up and it’s up to us to reunite them and save Christmas! I’m not sure what cynics would make of this piece – the show depends on romantic and optimistic audience members – but my companion and I are Disney-loving saps, so jumped into gear easily and happily.
The audience of two is split up and sent on a Disney-flecked tour of Covent Garden, lit up by Joanna Scother’s witty and romantic costumes. We meet Snow White, the Ugly Sisters and animals stuck half way between man and creature, whiskers twitching on their faces or tails swishing from beneath their coats. We gossip with princes, take part in magic spells and prepare lonely sisters for their big dates.
We’re led through suit stores, chocolate shops and various other retailers throughout Covent Garden. If I’m being generous, I could say it’s charming that these shops agreed to take part. But it is also rather odd to be paraded around shops throughout the production, just at the height of the Christmas shopping season. Commercialism and theatricality nestle side by side in an uncomfortable fashion.
Some of the encounters are whacky and engaging enough to quell such misgivings – but there was one particularly grating scene which threatened to break the spell completely. Deep into my adventure, following a moving encounter with a heart-broken Buttons, I am led to a pumpkin seller who delivers a potted summary of the history of Covent Garden. I could practically see the show’s proposal being written in front of my eyes. It made me feel silly for ‘falling for’ the rest of the show.
Just as I’m starting to harden against the piece, I’m whisked off in a carriage and cheerfully heckled by members of the public. In fact, it’s the Covent Garden crowd that lights up this show and softens it around the edges. As I wandered about the street with a beautifully-dressed Snow White, little girls hovered excitedly in the distance – and as I took my carriage ride, a number of people wished me happiness and earnestly implored me to get married. There’s magic to be found out there; maybe we’d have felt it more strongly if we’d spent a little less time touring the shops of Covent Garden.
Henry V, Noel Coward Theatre, London
Well, that’s Michael Grandage’s first West End season done and dusted and let me tell you this: it was absolutely fine. There were plenty of celebrities, lots of lucid performances, some pretty sets and no surprises. The whole season has had a whiff of the head boy showcase about it. It’s all perfectly admirable and impressive – but it isn’t half galling too.
There’s even an air of head boy about Jude Law’s Henry V. Dressed in streamlined period costume, Law looks like he’s had a particularly adventurous rummage around Top Man. Law’s Henry V is the type of solid and confident chap you’d want to lead your football team. He is loyal and forthright and not afraid to get physical. This is a King who relishes confrontation but does not lose himself in it. That’s a fairly decent attribute for a King to have, with his England on the cusp of war with France.
Law’s Henry isn’t just strong; there are moments of great shade and colour to his performance. Law looks like he is really relishing the lushness and complexity of Shakespeare’s script, marvelling at Shakespeare’s tripping, swooping, teasing use of language. Law caresses the expansive vowels and triumphantly cuts down on the sharp consonants. He does a very decent job of carving out the script and all credit to Grandage for coaxing out such confident elocution.
But it does feel like it is the rich script and delivery that elevates Law’s performance rather than something that runs a little deeper. I’m not convinced Law’s characterisation is as sophisticated as his delivery – but it is still a skilful and convincing performance. The same can be said of Grandage’s production, which is solid indeed and just a little proud of itself.
There’s a vague weariness that clings to this show. It feels like Grandage is falling back on his greatest tricks so as to avoid offending this new, larger and richer, audience. Christopher Oram’s set encapsulates this elegant poise, which is just a whisker away from stagnancy. The stage is enclosed by huge planks of exquisitely aged wood. It looks like a giant shed; very pretty, vaguely ominous but ultimately a little bland.
Lots of the images - those big reveals in which the director and designer are meant to flex their muscles – are underwhelming. The same applies to Adam Cork (this is the man behind the inimitable London Road) and his sound design. It all feels a bit paint by numbers. On the eve before battle, the giant shed opens to reveal a sparkling night sky. Cork’s ‘wonder’ music, which is used at suitably reverential moments throughout the show, tinkles in the background. The soldier’s shiver around little camp fires, which glow from beneath the stage. Each piece of the puzzle feels worn out.
The battle scenes, which is where the fire of this play burns, are flat. Propeller recently staged Henry V and their battles felt like one long extended chest-rattling war cry. These clashes were pumped full of so much testosterone, it was all I could do not to bash the person next to me. But Grandage’s battles are so tidy; so safe and so pretty! When Henry’s army prepare for battle, they stand in neatly arranged lines. And when the guns finally start firing, the battle unfolds with perfect symmetry. A gun goes off with each solider’s entrance onto stage. This is battle as background support rather than foreground chaos.
There are little sparks and exceptions, which suggest how much more exciting this production might have been. Ashley Zhangazha is brilliant as the chorus boy, whose job it is to flit in and out of the show, pointing out its fictional qualities and losing himself inside the fantasy. Zhangazha, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, makes light work of his performance. He plays around with his speeches, injecting them with fresh and immediate energy. He makes the play feel volatile and new.
The one time the show proper breaks free from its handsome restraints is in the final scene, when Law’s Henry attempts to woo Princess Katherine. Suddenly there is sparkle and spontaneity to Law’s performance. A little of the man, fallible and unpredictable, is finally allowed to wriggle into the show. The head boy is vanquished, the school rebel takes over and the show is transformed from a fine monument into a vulnerable but lively production.
Till 12 February 2014
Gastronauts certainly isn’t a dog’s dinner, but I also didn’t go home raving about the Head Chef. There are some cracking courses in here, which will make you question your relationship with food and food production. The show is packed with spices and flavour; whacky tasting sessions take place in a new-age dining hall, as we are entertained by quirky songs, surreal fantasies and snappy satirical encounters. But I still had a hankering for a full-on main course by the time we got to desserts.
There’s a slightly chaotic air to Wils Wilson’s show, which put me on edge. The same flushed tension that permeates the 24 Hour Plays at the Old Vic lingered upstairs at the Royal Court; it was as if April de Angelis and Nessa Muthy had been told to riff on the theme of food in an incredibly short amount of time. The team has just about pulled it off - but there is a precariousness about the show’s structure and the actors’ performances, which suggests it was a close run thing.
This tension is bolstered by a doggedly quirky atmosphere which underpins – and threatens to undermine – the whole production. Everything that can be made weird is made even weirder. The whole experience is set amid a space age(ish) dining hall, with bulbous lights hanging from the ceilings and the actors dressed as shiny-looking flight attendants. Perhaps this setting is meant to lend the show an air of prophetic (sexy/shiny) doom – but this otherworldly framework only made the straight scenes feel even more out of place and the audience, a little out of sorts.
That forced quirkiness also impacts almost all the linking episodes, which hold the show together. There are weird explosions of sound and colour between some scenes, when a drink is spilled, lights flash, sirens blare and the cast stalks about the dining room, screaming ‘Spiiiiiiiill!’ They might as well have got the actors to holler out: ‘We have bugger all idea how to tie this piece together!!’
Despite this odd level of anxiety, which is really distracting, there are some fierce moments in here, which could only have come out of show with this much flare. The bizarre fantasy sequences are particularly effective and tap into Western society’s obsession with body image. A young girl greedily reads about a new diet in Grazia and speaks to her wafer-thin friend who is now trapped inside a strawberry. ‘You look so good!’, she screams at the strawberry. It is a bravely bonkers sequence, which emphasizes how ridiculously far these diet-fads can take us.
We’re also treated to a mind-bending taste session, in which our expectations about food are turned inside out. Something that looks savoury turns about to be sweet and we begin to realise just how dumbly and blindly we connect the appearance of food with its hidden content. With a frightening nod to the future, we’re also invited to chomp down on insects. It’s much easier to imagine your future when you’re actually eating it.
That’s only the half of it. There are also a number of more conventional dining-related scenes, which examine the culpability of the food producers and the complicity of advertisers. Not to mention the scenes in which the connection between food and memory is teased open. On top of all of this, there is the occasional lull, during which it’d be rude not to make small-talk with our fellow diners. A bewildering, memorable, exhausting experience.
Sadie Jones is dead. Sadie Jones is mad. Sadie Jones is missing. What on earth is going on with Sadie Jones? ‘The Disappearance of Sadie Jones’ unfolds in a Stindberg-inspired hinterland, a dreamscape flecked with nightmarish visions. With just a few flicks of her writing wrist – words games, haunting repetitions and imploding sentences - Hannah Silva deftly explores the fine line between sanity and madness, joy and depression, the here and beyond.
There’s a mesmerising and hazy quality to this production, which is as soothing as it is unsettling. Sadie Jones (a translucent Stephanie Greer) describes her situation with a childlike simplicity: ‘The tall thin people surround Sadie Jones’. It sounds a little bit like a bed-time story. But just as we’re about to relax, Hannah Silva – who writes and directs – roughly shakes the script and jolts us out of our revelry.
These jolts are verbal and physical and, despite their recurrence, almost always a surprise. That is because Silva is a master of rhythm, both with her writing and directing. As Sadie’s sister (Elizabeth Crarer) and lover (Alan Humphreys) reflect about Sadie, violent physical tics invade their speech. The lover retches repeatedly, lurching forward over and over again. Sadie’s sister talks in halting tones, as Sadie falls into her arms. A strangled scream escapes from the sister’s lips. Crarer and Humphreys handle these intrusions brilliantly, always holding onto something human in their performance despite the show’s precarious grip on reality.
For all the sister’s and lover’s efforts to keep talking and keep things normal, the darkness and weirdness that envelops Sadie’s life begins to take over. A harsh soundscape adds another level of fear and confusion. As Sadie talks about her skeleton, which has been etched with the words ‘a great massacre has occurred’, slashing sounds whirl about her. At other times a blank swirling sound fills the space, as if Sadie and everyone around her have been locked inside a vacuum.
Sadie’s journey is the most entrancing of all the strange avenues that criss-cross through this superbly constructed play. At one point, Sadie directs dead people to dance. It is a brilliant image; beautiful and sad and, despite its surreal nature, somehow honest. What a unique and sensitive imagination Silva possesses – and what a fine understanding of the tiny details that distinguish between the great gulfs in our lives.
Silva tweaks her script with pinpoint accuracy, transforming hope into fear, love into loss (‘I will love you forever/I don’t love you anymore) and life into emptiness, with just a few twisted sentences, warped repetitions or delicate shifts in tones. It is hard to say, by the end, if Sadie is dead or simply lost in her own private world of depression and paranoia. Is there really that much difference between the two?
Working Mens’ Clubs (WMCs) first appeared in the mid-1800s as a refuge from the ‘miserable place’ their members called home, says Ruth Cherrington. In the latter part of the 19th century, while they were exempt from new licensing laws – and booming as a result – the clubs were nevertheless regarded as the respectable alternative to the pub. The clubs were frequented by the social drinker not the ‘rough’ (or as we might say today, the binge) drinker. As an 1875 Act of Parliament determined they were centres for ‘moral improvement and rational recreation’.
This respectability was as important, initially at least, to the members themselves – some clubs had their own reading rooms, featured talks and lectures from invited speakers or had their own debating societies – as it was to social reformers keen to impose a greater sobriety on the working class. Today’s temperance campaigners, while far less interested in the intellectual improvement of the lower orders, are similarly contemptuous of their everyday conduct. Instead of wielding bibles as did the Salvation Army troops of the clubs’ early days, today’s booze botherers hide behind scary stats and ‘awareness’ campaigns.
But this is not to forget that the clubs were far more than just drinking establishments, as Cherrington is keen to point out and as the title of the book makes clear. They ‘exercised a form of local democracy’ alongside the emerging trade unions ‘long before all working men had been given the right to vote’. They were a focus for political meetings and often named after the industries in which their members worked or, despite the efforts of the Club and Institute Union (CIU), after their political leanings: be they ‘Radical’, ‘Liberal’ or even ‘Conservative’.
The club movement continued to grow through the inter-war and post-war period. By the 1970s there were an estimated four million members of what was, under the umbrella of the CIU, ‘one of the largest voluntary organisations in the world’ the author tells us. Since then the WMC movement has been in a state of decline with half of the clubs established at their peak having since called time. The ‘trades-clubs’ were the first to go as industrial decline set in. So embedded were the clubs in the communities of which they were a part, and for all that some continue to hang on, they could hardly survive without the ‘working men’ in whose name they functioned.
And much has changed since at a cultural level too. Cherrington points to a number of factors to explain the demise of the clubs: television, the ‘swinging sixties’ and holidaying abroad; the ban on smoking, the wide availability of cheap alcohol in the supermarkets and pub chains; the popularity of multiplexes, gyms and coffee shops; and a rise in home ownership and home entertainment, as people found something better to spend their growing disposable incomes on. But while all of this is no doubt true it seems to me that what was really decisive is that what made the clubs special and distinct – that they were owned by their members and were proudly independent – has been progressively undermined over much the same period. That people increasingly became ‘passive consumers of fee-charging leisure venues’ with which the clubs simply couldn’t compete is only a part of the story. Their decline was also part of a much wider trend of institutional and community-level disorientation and fragmentation.
While the clubs themselves left much to be desired – ‘An air of decay set in which in itself was off-putting’, says Cherrington – the world was also changing around them. ‘Masses of people used to do the same things at the same time’ until the young became more mobile and drifted away from the clubs, we learn. While this undermined the socialising influence of communities it was also a good thing: an opportunity for young people to escape the constraints of community and make their own way in that changing world. (That today we live so much more privatised ‘home-centred’ lives is a problem.) Cherrington presents the complex of factors involved in the decline of WMCs but doesn’t disentangle them. We are still left to wonder why the clubs are no longer what they were. It seems to me that not only was there the pull of a more exciting world beyond Clubland, but also the push of a slow-burning crisis in those communities; itself a consequence of the demise of a wider social, cultural and moral framework rooted in the old class politics.
The recent experience of riots without reason and the growing problem of anti-social behaviour can, in this sense, be understood as a result of the breakdown in those old social solidarities established through institutions like the clubs. Critically, it was the political defeat of the working class in the 1980s – not just the experience of industrial decline – that was responsible for the eventual collapse of those community-formed institutions.
In this context what are we to make of the clubs? Cherrington tells us the CIU still represents 2,000 clubs across the country. But not only do they continue to close; they are thoroughly irrelevant even to their own members. (Few bothered to vote in the election in 2009 for a new CIU General Secretary. The author tells us that the spoiled papers of 25 clubs came in third place.) This is a shame in as far as in their day they had a lot going for them. They may have been little more than a room above a shop or a converted house to begin with. But what they lacked in facilities they more than made up for with their admirable facility for ‘self-help’ and, as Cherrington puts it, ‘clubbing together’. Which, incidentally, is why WMCs appeal (albeit after the fact) to a political class that worries about social atomisation, cultural decline, and, relatedly, its own irrelevance. But trying to retrospectively co-opt a decaying institution in the service of civil renewal is doomed to failure.
The urge to recreate a ‘sense of community’ in our anxious and individuated times, while understandable, gets things the wrong way around. It is a mistake to get too sentimental about the clubs. They served a purpose for communities that no longer exist. They are an institutional expression of, and a left-over from, those expired social collectivities. But they are still worth reflecting on.
They were a product of a culture that imbued individuals with a characteristically robust sense of themselves – something we could badly do with today. While the club movement was torn between its ideals of autonomy and a stuffy moral conservatism – my local Walthamstow WMC, possibly the first CIU registered club, is still teetotal and men-only to this day according to the author – they were also the source of some strikingly permissive sentiments. Cherrington cites a late 19th Century Lord Rosebery, CIU president at the time, declaring in a perennial debate about licensing, that working men are ‘not to be patronised, and fostered, and dandled.’ Their clubs must ‘be free from all vexatious, infantile restrictions on the consumption of intoxicating drinks and similar matters’. ‘All that is to be done for the working men is to be done by themselves’, insisted Rosebery.
What is most striking is that this aristocrat’s belief – over a hundred years ago – that ordinary folk could be, as he put it, ‘raised by their own endeavours’ could not be further removed from the elitist and belittling sentiments expressed by supposed left-wingers and ‘liberals’ today. They are far too busy pitying and patronising the poor and so-called vulnerable about their drinking and gambling habits to entertain such wild notions. And they would no doubt be surprised to learn that this insistence that the working man stand on his own two feet was not inconsistent, as Cherrington makes clear, with a compassion for one’s fellow members. In the days before the welfare state they would contribute to the early social insurance schemes run by the clubs, and raise funds for seaside ‘convalescent homes’ for members taken ill.
And in this latter regard too it is tempting to see a model for today, a way of addressing society’s problems from lonely older folk to riotous (quite literally) youth, or – in the case of intergenerational projects – both. Maybe the clubs ‘can help to combat these negative trends that impoverish people’s lives and their communities’ and even be ‘part of important social capital’ argues the author. Maybe. But there is also a danger in looking for answers to today’s problems in a long gone yesterday; or in expecting clubs to do more than what their members want from them.
For instance, for all the talk of self-improvement in the early days, most clubs increasingly opted for the ‘less earnest and well-intentioned’ world of music hall as ‘an escape for ordinary people from the daily grind’. Clubland became the ‘largest collective venue for live entertainment’ in the country, explains Cherrington. And yet now what was once a vibrant world of tough crowds and honed acts barely exists outside grim seaside resorts and affectionate TV comedy send-ups, namely the excellent Phoenix Nights. While a minority of enterprising clubs are getting the younger folk through the doors (with new bands and burlesque apparently!); this is not a revival of the clubs so much as a reuse of the buildings that once held them.
So much has changed that it is perhaps worth reflecting on how the clubs drew on a very different set of cultural assumptions. They used to be rather good at raising the young for instance. ‘Parents would collectively keep an eye on the kids’ as members took on an ‘informal childcare’ role that simply wouldn’t be allowed today. The clubs didn’t have to be registered with the DfE, and members weren’t required to have a CRB check. The members were ‘acting as informal mentors to the next generation’ without ever thinking of themselves as such; initiating young men both into their fathers’ clubs and into adulthood. ‘It gave them not only a membership card’ says Cherrington ‘but a sense of belonging and identity’ too. But I suspect the ‘club child’ would be an object of official concern today, however much the clubs successfully nurtured aspirant adults. Not only have the authorities – in the absence of mediating institutions like the clubs – sought to protect the young (and not so young) against the supposed dangers of alcohol, smoking and gambling (amongst other things); they have also promoted a culture where adults taking on collective responsibility for socialising their children is largely unheard of today. The newly held assumption that we should regard each other with suspicion rather than as potential allies or as sources of mutual support has been thoroughly internalised.
Though it was women – even though they weren’t members in most instances – who took on the childcare responsibilities; these were clubs, as Cherrington puts it, ‘set up by men, for men’. Whatever your views on the clubs’ attitudes to women, exclusivity is the point of setting up or joining a club. The members alone decide who they let in. In the late 1980s the CIU President Derek Dormer made the case for women to have full membership rights but only on the clubs’ terms: ‘This is not something that will ever be forced upon club members’ he said. But the pressure to conform saw the CIU introduce equal membership rights in 2007; and by 2010 they were required to comply with the Equality Act. Indeed ‘equalities’ became something of a nuisance for a club movement with more than enough problems already.
When it came to ‘race’, for instance, the exclusivity associated with club life was not regarded as a recommendation so much as an indictment. The right of members to exclude those with whom they didn’t wish to associate looked suspiciously like, and sometimes was, a ‘colour bar’. One branch claimed they had ‘coloured people’ as members. ‘We would be discriminating if we kept a list’ it was argued, and it has to be said with some logic. Up until the mid-1970s the CIU stuck to this line with one General Secretary writing that those accusing the clubs of racism failed to ‘understand the true nature of a bona fide members’ club … that it is an essential ingredient in the construction of a club that it must be private’.
While acknowledging their slowness to adapt and their embededness in ‘attitudes and behaviour that were prevalent’ at the time, Cherrington reminds us that the clubs had always self-selected according to ‘occupation, political stance, or ethnic identity’ – the Welsh miners with their choirs ticking every box. So what’s the problem? ‘Should clubs’, she asks, ‘whether WMCs, Turkish or Greek sports and coffee clubs, be made to recruit from outside their own target groups?’ Surely that would be absurd and unreasonable? Rather tentatively she ventures: ‘It could be that multiculturalism has encouraged separation of ethnic groups rather than mixing’. I would go a little further. Those who have endorsed this supposed ‘equalities’ agenda – multiculturalism with its reification of cultural difference in fact being its opposite – faced with the fact that it has tended to reinforce and even fuel divisions rather than abolish them, have sought to legislate against its divisive impact.
In an eloquent presidential address to a CIU AGM, and under the threat of equalities legislation, one delegate had this to say: ‘A club is not a club because of the size of its structure but because of the atmosphere inside the building. That is the atmosphere of friendship that comes from love or esteem between two or more persons – it can never be ordered by law’.
This understanding as Cherrington put it that ‘people could only be integrated on the basis of friendship and mutual cooperation, not the force of law’ held little sway with the leadership of what was (once at least) the political wing of the labour movement. Indeed, the coming to power of the legislatively loose and politically hollowed out New Labour governments only made things worse. The clubs were compelled if they had 25 members or more to demonstrate through their constitutions that to the satisfaction of law makers they didn’t discriminate with regards gender, race or ‘disablement’. Whether or not clubs are more inclusive as a result there are certainly fewer of them around to do any including. I suspect such impositions, whatever the intentions, are only contributing to the quickening of the clubs’ decline.
Against this rather hostile social, cultural and political backdrop, Cherrington’s optimism is admirable. Surely the kids will get bored of social networking online and rediscover their grandparents’ yearning for ‘real, physical contact with friends’ in which the clubs specialised, she speculates. The trouble is that far from being able to trade on the ‘unique worth and traditional values’ of the WMC brand to this end, these were jettisoned long ago.
The CIU has forgotten its values in the opportunistic pursuit of a narrower notion of ‘worth’. Its rightful opposition to the bureaucratic burden on the clubs is not driven by any underlying principles. While it strongly opposed the impact of the smoking ban on its members it has been less keen on them exercising their freedoms outside of the clubs. So it joined in the calls for minimum pricing on alcohol to allegedly stop so-called binge drinking. And no less opportunistic is the search for policy fads on which to hang a hoped for revival. The new-found admirers of the clubs in the policy world go on about their importance to building the Big Society. Cherrington too thinks they are capable of ‘addressing fragmentation and social breakdown’ after the riots; and that the ‘evidence that clubs are good for you’ means they can contribute to the government’s rather creepy happiness agenda too.
But putting these questionable policy prescriptions to one side, the author’s account of the club movement is not only fascinating but a thought-provoking contribution to the debate about what happened to the working class culture that bore the WMCs. Still I find it hard to disagree with those who regard the CIU and at least some of the clubs affiliated to it as ‘out of touch and old-fashioned’. I rather think that they should be allowed to go extinct rather than be preserved as flat-cap curiosities. Energies would be better spent trying to create new institutions more suited to our times – while challenging those things that have changed for the worse – rather than seeking to breathe new life into one that is evidently taking its last gasps.
Of course, given the scale of the physical legacy of the WMCs some will make a go of it and good luck to them. But this will have little to do with what motivated the working men that built the clubs, however much social capital they might generate for their respective localities. Being more outward-looking and business-minded, and inviting the community to use the clubs’ considerable under-occupied facilities is no bad thing. But there is a difference between trying to revive the WMCs and finding a new use for the buildings they once occupied. Their emptying out as representative and functioning working people’s institutions – much like the faded New Labour brand and what passes for trade unionism today – is too far advanced for that.
Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the man of seemingly endless identity changes. David Bowie has been all of these, and more. So an exhibition which purports to tell us about hlm faces a challenge of scarlly monstrous proportions. Does it deliver the goods on this rock god?
What’s on offer here, and how has it been assembled? With the aid of unprecedented access to the David Bowie Archive, Victoria Broakes and Geoffrey Marsh -the V & A’s Theatre and Performance curators — have assembled more than 300 objects that have been brought together for the very ﬁrst time. As we enter the exhibition, we’re greeted by the striped bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane tour of 1973, which raises our expectations for a feast of ﬂamboyance to follow. But, to remind us of the world that Bowie (bom 1947) grew up in — a world of conservative values on the cusp of social change — we see copies of the novels Absolute eginners and Lady ChatterIey’s Lover and a poster for John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger.
Then - as if we’re in the bedroom of an obsessive yet orderly Bowie fan — we’re off on a voyage of exploration around the different aspects of Bowie’s constantly-changing self- presentation, something which is emphasized by the use of the word is — with its connotations of living, moving, and having being — in the exhibition’s title. The effect of rooms of costumes, ﬁlm-clips, records and notes for song lyrics is overwhelming, so let’s pinpoint some examples which mark his development. We see photographs of his early musical years in which he seems a pensive, moody Mod but with a hint of expectation, as if he’s telling us to keep an eye out for him as better things are coming. And, indeed, a more exotic mode of presentation awaited Bowie. This was the era of alternative performance art, of varied content and varying competence. Dancer, actor and mime artist Lindsay Kemp used Bowie’s music in his show, and a photograph shows the performer simpering deceptively. From Kemp, Bowie learnt stagecraft, including the use of costume, lighting and sets, skills which he would proﬁtably put to use in his own performances. There is a copy of a programme for Bowie’s 1969 Changes tour and an original record of his single ‘Space 0ddity’ from the same year, the track which would bring him his first taste of mainstream success.
Bowie owed his fame, arguably, more to his visual style than his music. His ﬁrst job after leaving school was working in advertising and, while it’s easy to snipe at the morals and workings of that profession, it’s one which requires mental and visual skills for its practitioners. Bowie built on that early experience, and we see his developing sense of visual importance in a photo taken of him in 1973 by photographer Mick Rock where, even though he’s not directly facing the camera, his smile, although meant to be natural-looking, has an element of a pose about it. Bowie was developing in other ways, too. We see a programme for Andy Warhol’s underground play Pork, held at the Roundhouse in 1971 and the members of whose cast — including transgendered singer Wayne (later Jayne) County, and gay actor Tony Zanetta - were befriended by Bowie, giving him the idea for chronicling the lifestyles of people on society’s socio-sexual margins. This is a reminder of the way in which the seventies was a period in which dystopia, violence and other noir themes were explored in a way that, arguably, would be almost unimaginable today for reasons of social and ﬁnancial risk aversion (would ﬁlms from that decade such as Chinatown, A Clockwork Orange and The French Connection get the go-ahead todayi‘). Bowie’s continuing attention to appearance and performance are emphasized by a smart black suit designed by Ola Hudson for the character of Thomas Jerome Newton and who was played by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’ s sci-ﬁ ﬁlm of 1976, The Man Who Fell to Earth. (This is complemented by a poster for the ﬁlm showing Bowie with a tough yet ethereal look.) We also see Bowie’s Pierrot or ‘Blue Clown’ costume, designed by Natasha Komiloff, for his ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video of 1980 (possibly the best promo video for the then-burgeoning New Romantic movement). We see artwork for the sleeve of Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs, where Bowie adopts a tough yet effeminate dog-like - or should that be bitch-like? — pose, and a model for a jagged stage set for his Glass Spider tour of 1987.
However, this exhibition raises several questions, the ﬁrst two of which are inter-related and might, in some quarters, be regarded as almost blasphemous to utter: how original is Bowie, and was the Bowie phenomenon of 40 years ago genuinely revelatory? In the seventies, if you considered that rock music had a primarily socio-political function — or if you were gay and ambitious, but lived in atmosphere where disapproval of homosexuality was combined with low expectations of life in general — then you probably did feel that Bowie’s performance style was a visual, and sexual, epiphany (the exhibition features the multi-coloured suit worn by Bowie for his performance of ‘Starman‘ on Top of the Pops in July 1972, an event which manifested his powerful effeminacy in all its glory).
If, however, you were familiar with the camp antics of the Bright Young People of the 1920s — such as Stephen Tennant — or felt that rock’s prime function was to entertain, preferably in as preposterous, over-the-top manner as possible, then you probably didn’t. Instead, you simply regarded Bowie’s contribution to it as excellent theatre, with the added value that — if you were so minded - being a fan of it would give you the satisfaction of annoying parents and other authority ﬁgures. Views will -to put it mildly - vary on these issues. But what cannot be doubted is that Bowie’s work did help to set a new benchmark for rock performance which would, in turn, have a societal impact in other ways.
The Gay Liberation movement emerging in America in the early 1970s had a puritanical streak in it which rejected ﬂamboyance (arguably, in the case of gay men, because of sexual guilt, against which the clone cult of hyper masculinity could act as an antidote) and which would spread across the Atlantic, but effeminate gays could ﬁnd a home among Bowie fans and helped to bring out altemative sexualities as a matter for public comment. And he showed that ordinary kids could become art objects. The largely working-class New Romantics who, dumb with mascara and blind with lipstick, would parade a few years later around Soho were indebted to Bowie’s example and inﬂuence. But as they did so — and built their careers in the process —they also promoted gender equality, for New Romanticism was a movement where women took leading roles as designers, musicians and club ﬁgures. Those career-building boys and girls would also keep alive - and pass-on —the ﬂame of Bowie’s stage presence and style presentation, with stars such as Lady Gaga acting as its current torchbearers.
The exhibition prompts further questions. How many Bowie enthusiasts plan to visit this exhibition (for which 47, 000 tickets have been sold so far), not only in recognition of his artistic gifts but also because he represents an era when sexualities which are today considered mainstream were regarded as having a frisson of delightfully dangerous deviancy, and pop/rock music, which is now formulaic — ‘I’m living my dream’ has become an almost obligatory phrase within the TV pop talent show liturgy — was considered genuinely rebellious (although it can argued that it lost the r-word when The Beatles were given an award by Harold Wilson as a way for him to cash-in on youth culture)? And is enthusiasm for Bowie a subconscious way of seeking solace through artistic and sexual ﬂamboyance in a time of socio-political insecurity? For during what were, arguably, Bowie’s golden years, Britain was in the grip of economic, industrial and racial tensions and uncertainties which seem to resonate today with the credit crunch, mass unemployment, gang violence, concerns (now being taken-up by mainstream politicians) over immigration, with disquiet over Muslim inﬂuence thrown in. it’s no surprise to feel that Bowie - via a combination of nostalgia and newness — may be reprising his role in a societal situation which is less than hunky dory.
But back to the exhibition. ‘In a series of photographs at its final section, Bowie is shown in a photo taken for his Pin Ups album by Mick Rock in 1973’. But there is another photograph of Bowie, taken this year by Jimmy King, showing the singer sitting in front of a joint photograph of Bowie and legendary Beat writer William Burroughs. In both pictures Bowie — despite the time lapse — radiates vulnerability and expectation, arguably two basic qualities to be found within any practitioner of the arts. This exhibition is a celebration, not only of Bowie’s magpie mind in spotting artistic and cultural trends, but also of his eagle eye in seeing how to present them in a way that continues to inspire today’s observers of his output to explore fresh cultural paths.
Sun might be the first dance piece you see that opens with a spoiler. Over the blacked out stage, a (cute-accented, foreign, male) voice comes over the theatre’s PA welcoming us to the show and telling us that, so we can enjoy the rest of the show without worrying, they’re going to show us a bit from the end first, so we know it’s all going to be OK in the end. Which they then duly do. The cleverness of this is that, as well as being quite funny, it immediately makes us think about the idea that whatever happens from the ‘real’ beginning until this point at the end is going to perhaps involve some sort of situation snowballing out of control. ‘Oh, and no animals were hurt in the making of this piece,’ the voice ominously adds.
The dancers are clad in light, colonial-looking clothing, with a couple of them maybe dressed as Pierrots. They look almost exactly like the cast of a production of The Tempest set in maybe 18th or 19th century Italy. They’re dancing to the Arrival of the Guests at Wartburg from Wagner’s Tannhauser. We see maybe thirty seconds to a minute of this. Then there is a black out. When the lights return, there is a single large cardboard cut-out of a sheep centre stage. Slowly, gradually it is joined by other cardboard cut-out sheep. This sequence is repeated a few times across the show, so I couldn’t say with any certainty which time it is that the cardboard cut-out wolf first appears. A woman seated in the front row of the audience stands up and screams, pointing at the wolf cut-out. Later, this sequence is repeated with a life-size card-board cut-out drawing of a native African (or possibly an Aborigine – is that still a word we use? It sounds more than a bit racist now). The ‘wolf ’ to this ‘sheep ’ is a cardboard cut-out drawing of a typical white Victorian colonist. Much later, a lone ‘hoodie ’ (looking like a cardboard cut-out by Banksy) makes an appearance, but this thought is not followed up. Similarly, close to the end, a lone banker on a mobile appears. We do not know if he is the natural predator of the hoodie or vice versa.
These faintly humorous sequences are interspersed with a lot more of the main event – namely the dancing. Shechter’s famous signature style is a kind of three-way collision between Jewish folk dancing, the more classical structures and shapes of ballet, and the sort of dancing to dance music that was popular when I was about 15. It’s also reminiscent of the sort of dancing you maybe saw native Americans doing in some old and probably racist cowboys and ‘Indians’ films. The soundtrack to this tends to be new, original music by Shechter himself. The choreographer originally trained as a percussionist before switching to dance, which is immediately apparent from the enormous reliance placed on rhythm in the music. Both strings and guitars are pretty much also used as additional percussive, rhythmic elements much more than for their properties as vehicles for melody. It stuck me in his earlier piece Political Mother that the majority of this music sounded a bit like a middle-eastern inflected version of Rage Against The Machine. Here, the use of the riff from RATM’s Bombtrack seems to confirm this diagnosis.
As suggested by the costumes and the cardboard cut-out pictures (even before the Aborigine turns up 27 minutes in), the theme of the piece seems clearly to be that of colonialism. The cluster of dancers seems to variously take the roles of natives and then split to also enact invaders. There is a sense throughout of a growing history. A sense of the inexorable tide of colonialism. This is leant poignancy by the make-up of Shechter’s company being so remarkably international. Without this colonialism, we might reflect, would there ever have been such a diverse dance company. On the other hand, should we really view it as inevitable just because it did happen to take place historically? The thesis being presented here (insofar as any dance really ‘presents a thesis ’ any more than it reflects a viewer’s prejudices or preoccupations) seemed to me to be suggesting that conquest and subjugation are a fairly essential and basic human condition. There is the thought that just as the native exercises dominion over the sheep that they find, then the colonialist whites simply applied the same policy to the indigenous peoples they ‘discovered ’. That this is played out underscored by music played at real volume suggest that we should view this as a catastrophe.
On a simplistic level, the fact that this apparent ‘march of history ’ culminates in the troupe goose-stepping and then the final reel, after a merry-go-round of sheeps, wolf, natives, colonials, hoodie and banker, dancing with apparent happiness to some Wagner… Well, you can infer what you like. There’s a darker moment before this where one of the dancers breaks off and screams into the auditorium ‘It’s behind you! ’ and then, ‘The wolf is behind you!’ Now, you could choose to interpret this as saying either that these bad old days are behind us. Or that it’s all just coiled like a spring and ready to pounce on us – that history is already ready to bite us again. It reads as if Shechter is suggesting that while we all dance about in a fluffy ‘post-ideological age’, his reassurance at the beginning, that it all ends fine was the heavily ironic statement I suspected from the get-go.
In Sun we the audience are expected to do some ‘reading ’ to identify what it was that is being proposed. That said, I’m not entirely sure Shechter’s politics and my own entirely meet. If I were to try to explain the divergence, I might say it feels (and only feels and only to me) that he takes a slightly more detached, amused, ironic view of humanity and history. Less satisfactory, however, is a short sequence in which there are only women. And it is the only section where anyone removes any clothes. And it is the only section to feature any overt sexuality/sexualisation. Sure, the clothes the three women strip down to are functional pants and sports bras, and the sexuality exuded may just as well be their own as something dreamt in the mind of a male choreographer. But since there’s no comparable sequence with men or male sexuality it seems a point worth drawing attention to. Also, I had no idea how it fitted into the wider narrative. ‘There’s history, now, let’s see how the women are doing,’ it appeared to briefly suggest.
Against this perhaps nit-picking at the dramaturgy or ‘story ’, I should offer a word about Lee Curran’s lighting. Curran’s designs for both this and Political Mother rank in my top five favourite lighting designs ever. There’s a school of thought that says if an audience member notices the lighting then it has failed. Subscribers to that school of thought are, in short, dicks. Here the stage is deliberately shrouded in haze. The haze gives form to every beam of light. This is lighting design made structural. And what a structure. What’s interesting here is how the lighting functions not only as a kind of second set – describing and creating new spaces and new ways of perceiving the stage and looking at the people on it. At times early on, you feel almost as if the dancers and the clothes they are wearing might be there largely to show off the lighting, to give the design a change to better accentuate new and different folds in cloth and textures of skin and hair. I am pretty sure I don’t really have the vocabulary or imagination yet to describe a ‘dramaturgy of lighting ’, but it feels like such a thing, such a discussion, is as central and crucial to the overall meaning of the piece as the movement of the dancers.
The recent refilming of The Great Gatsby must have sent a lot of us back to reread the book: and what an exquisite piece of narration it is – standing almost like a last flowering of figurative art, with its precision of crafted prose, before artistic progress descended into the generalities of abstraction.
As I immersed myself once again in this perfectly constructed short novel, the first tremor of déjà vu I felt was over the personality of the side-lined narrator: didn’t Nick Carraway, the rather literary observer of the scene, remind one of François Seurel from Le Grand Meaulnes? It’s a brilliant device, which works equally well in both novels, to heighten the sense of hero worship that accompanied Jay Gatsby and Augustin Meaulnes. For both are larger than life characters who suddenly appear from obscured backgrounds and take their new circle by storm, causing the lesser characters in both narrations to rally round them in the hope of reflected aura.
And then I realised that the key themes are remarkably similar too: both are about an ideal of finding the perfect love, whether with Daisy Buchanan or Yvonne de Galais; both are about the loss of this discovery, and the attempts to rekindle it years later, but history gets in the way of returning to that lost idyll, to what Carraway describes as ‘the incorruptible dream’. In both cases the great hero goes off on a quest before he dare settle with his young love; in both there is a rival male, which is Tom in Gatsby and Frantz in Meaulnes; in both there is a contrasting darker affair, with Myrtle and with Valentin; and in both the true heroine has a young child, representing their desolate hope of the future.
Once I’d realised the echoes in the characters and the themes, a host of smaller details hit me with their reverberations: in both novels there are grand parties that are thrown with total abandon; both festivities happen at sumptuous mansions, with romantic turrets and banks of lawns; later, there are fateful gunshots in each; and episodes of looking up at windows, waiting for lights to signal behind the curtains. There is an almost coded reference in Gatsby to a ghostly piano, reminiscent of Yvonne’s lonely playing; and then the repeated motif of flashing lanterns…
At this point I became transfixed by the degree of - what, plagiarism or hommage? I calculated that it was certainly possible that Fitzgerald had read Fournier, for Le Grand Meaulnes was published in 1913 just before Fournier was tragically killed in the trenches in 1914, while Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby ten years later in 1924 on the French Riviera. I found that he had read other novels in French that year: he told his editor that he was reading Le Bal du comte d’Orgel by Raymond Radiguet, so might well have read Fournier’s novel, since it had been nominated for the Prix Goncourt. Julian Barnes is the one writer I found who acknowledged the influence; in an article in the Guardian in April 2012, he said ‘I haven’t been able to substantiate this connection: the nearest proof-by-association being the fact that the first translator of Fournier’s novel was Harry Crosby, the millionaire expatriate who moved in the same Parisian circles as Fitzgerald.’ So maybe Le Grand Meaulnes<?i> got onto Fitzgerald’s reading list in Paris before he moved down to Valescure.
But why are these connections not more frequently mentioned? One biography of Fitzgerald by a French author, no less, André le Vot, who makes no links between the two; he goes into great detail on the influence of Zelda’s summer dalliance with a French aviator, but no mention of his compatriot’s great work on such similar themes. The only significant debt that is occasionally acknowledged is the title itself: apparently Fitzgerald made this final choice after discarding several alternatives, such as Trimalchio in West Egg; but Gatsby is never called ‘Great’ within the book, as he only decided on the tribute after the text was finished.
What Fitzgerald therefore achieved, I’d suggest, was to absorb the haunting fantasy of Le Grand Meaulnes and relocate it in a very different, highly materialistic society, with yet more historical and cultural associations that would resound in readers’ minds. He did this so successfully that his original debt is virtually forgotten or missed, even by those who know both texts well; such is the subtle role of literary influence and unacknowledged tribute between writers.
I am a great fan of Mohsin Hamid. The Reluctant Fundamentalist caught the post-9/11 zeitgeist like no other novel, and his debut book, Moth Smoke, whilst having some first-novel flaws, was enchanting. So you can imagine how I was looking forward to his new novel.
To start with the positives, of which there are many – vintage Hamid in fact – include a darkness interlaced with a distinctive sense of humour, the hint of violence, the flow, the readability. I read the book twice, both times in one go. Some examples of the wonderful use of language from the beginning of the book: ‘But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats’. And: ‘to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning’.
So what are the negatives, as there are bound to be in any novel? This can perhaps best be summarised by these small sections in an otherwise very positive review by Anthony Andrew in the Guardian (April 2013):
There’s a tremendous energy about the novel, reflected in the protagonist’s unstoppable drive, but sometimes one wishes it didn’t move quite so fast. Whole stages of life pass by in a few pages and given Hamid’s rich descriptive skills, it’s tempting to imagine a larger novel which burrowed deeper into the specificities of the central figure’s struggle and environment.
There are historical and political reasons why Pakistan is what one writer has called a “procrustean hell”. And I for one would like to see Hamid bring his considerable talents to the task of examining those causes in greater detail. But perhaps that’s for another time.
The two points are related, I think, and the clue to the real problem of the novel lies in the title: it implies that it is indeed possible to get filthy rich in Asia, and that Asia is indeed rising. This is an illusion, certainly for Pakistan and probably also for India, and here I can say that my criticism of Hamid is not really specifically aimed at him but also at the other members of the current illustrious crop of Western-Asian writers like Mohammed Hanif and Aravind Adiga, all of whom I admire greatly. It is also perhaps my main criticism of Adiga’s White Tiger, even though I see that as being one of the best books of the past decade. It is true that there are indeed a few filthy rich people in Pakistan and India, but the vast majority live in poverty and squalor, and will continue to do so for many generations to come if the current East/West imbalance continues.
The writers mentioned have attempted to move on from postcolonialism, and all credit to them for that. They no longer wish to ‘write back to the centre’, to keep blaming the West for the problems of the East, and have chosen to focus on their home countries. But the truth is that it is still not as simple as that. What is happening now is perpetuation, rather than instigation, in which ethnic Westerners are complicit in the abuse and exploitation of the East. Force, slavery and colonialism have been replaced by more subtle forms of control in the form of unfair and rigged world trade policies. What these writers are currently not doing in their latest works is showing the continuing East/West link of repression and collusion that still persists. I illustrate this link in my own stories, wherein it is always British Pakistanis perpetrating the abuse on their home countries; for example, a British Pakistani sex-tourist in one story, and a British Pakistani import/export company in another, employing child labour in its factory in Pakistan.
The most egregious of these unfair policies is free movement of capital and goods, but not of labour; a totally unfair international division of labour, which is not at all based on geography or genuine skills, which consigns all the cheap manual labour to the East; and, finally, a lack of an international minimum wage, which leads directly to child labour.
Why should we change? Because the imbalance is now coming to bite us in the backside, in the form of mass migration, unsustainable world population growth (a result of the need for child labour), and terrorism, to name just a few problems. There is plenty of evidence to support this argument. Not to mention the moral horrors of incidents such as the recent Bangladesh building disaster, which too are a result of cheap labour.
But back to Mohsin Hamid and why, despite the flaws that his novel, like all novels, has, I would still recommend readers to read it, and why I will rush to buy his next one: not only because all the positive traits mentioned in the beginning run throughout the book, but because of his humane vision; this is shown in the ending of the book where the two old lovers are ultimately reunited, and the book ends:
and you are ready, ready to die well, ready to die like a man, like a woman, like a human, for despite all else you have loved [...] you have been beyond yourself, and so you have courage [...] and calmness in the face of terror, and awe, and the pretty girl holds your hand [...]
A pretty girl holding your hand (or vice versa) makes everything all right in the end.
Michael Longhurst is one of the most versatile and expressive directors of his generation. What he does, better than anyone else, is to recognise and release the essential flavour of a script. One of Longhurst’s first productions, Stovepipe, was as fraught and dangerous as Adam Brace’s grenade of a play. His production of Constellations shimmered with delicate meaning and perfectly encapsulated the winking profundity of Payne’s writing.
Now, with his first production at the Shed, Longhurst has chosen to play The World of Extreme Happiness as an endless, oddly glinting daydream. Not quite real life, not quite fantasy, this show stays faithful to the bold eccentricity of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s writing. The production is charged with a sort of garish optimism and reflects the savage hope and despair that China’s selective prosperity has brought about.
There’s a touch of the Wizard of Oz to this show, both in design and plot. An exceptional girl, Sunny (Katie Leung), sets off from the countryside to the city, in search of factory work. She meets friends and foes along the way but is ultimately dumped back into reality with one hell of a thud. Chloe Lamford’s set nudges at the Oz parallels; a neon rainbow arches above the stage, behind which stands a precarious pyramid of packaged, glowing baby dolls. This is the factory and mecca that Sunny has been searching for, only it is sinister and threatening and, raised above the stage, just out of reach.
There is a determinedly off-beat feel to this production that lends it a peculiar authenticity. Sunny’s father (Daniel York – ghastly but with a shadow of humanity clinging to him) sings a Celine Dion songs to a live pigeon, cradled in his hands. A mother drugs her son in order to stop him striking. Sunny is nearly married off to a ghost, an altar lit up with cheerful fairylights. Sunny’s friend (Vera Chok) at the factory is so focused on success that any common sense has leaked right out of her. This is a country on the edge, driven mad by the famine, by the one child policy and the terrible gulf between the ‘city people’ and rural farmers.
There are a few extraordinary scenes when the play stops hovering above the horror and fear and pain and dives right in. Real emotions are released so rarely in this restlessly eclectic show that, when they come, they hurt. Deep into the play, a janitor (Junix Inocian) remembers the devastation caused by the Great Chinese Famine. He talks of babies’ throats being slit beneath bashful blankets, a white hot rage quietly seeping out of his every pore.
Admittedly, this play does begin to splinter a little under its own weight. There are so many plot threads to handle and so many strange excursions, that the brain struggles to keep up. But it is also a brave, captivating and unique; a powerful confirmation of the vital strength of the individual voice.
A thin white path zig zags above the stage, around the walls and through to the white benches in the audience. Occasionally, the lines flare up with light, a vague threat on the fringes of normality. It looks a bit like a bleached version of the Yellow Brick Road – only there’s no wizard at the end of the line in Rachel De-lahay’s immigration play, Routes.
There’s something a touch forced about this piece, right down to Paul Wills’ attractive but overly translatable set. Simon Godwin’s production feels important and the characters, authentic - but the play is a little too calculated and concertinaed for my taste.
There are two distinct stories here, both of which eventually wind up at UK border control. In Nigeria, Femi (Peter Bankole, an actor who exudes such kindness, you’d willingly destroy a play just to give him a happy ending) is trying to secure a dodgy passport in order to make a risky trip to England and his family. In London, young Somalian and orphan Bashir (Fiston Barek) is teaching his friend, Kola (Calvin Demba, soft as nails), about the importance of family. Pity that Bashir’s about to be forced out of the country for good.
Barek’s Bashir and Demna’s Kola have a believable and surprising dynamic together. Their friendship freezes and thaws, freezes and thaws, until it eventually solidifies into something special and lasting. De-lehay captures the fear that underpins the swagger of teenage lads; the hatred of loneliness that so often forces people away. It’s just a shame that, at only an hour long, there’s not more time to work on this friendship. The early development of the boys’ relationship is depicted brilliantly but, as the stakes get higher, the length to which Kola will go for his new friend Bashir doesn’t really ring true.
That goes for most of the relationships in this play; they start out organically and convincingly but are gradually undermined by an overly demanding plot. Once Bashir is thrown into an immigration removal centre, the relationship with his advisor – Anka – accelerates at a great pace. There just isn’t enough time for the audience to jump on board. The same goes for the thorny relationship between Kola and his mum, which is temptingly complex but slightly under-worked.
There is intrigue in every relationship and import in all the plot-threads; they just need a little more time. The whole play also feels frustratingly one sided, the immigrants cast as the good guys and Immigration Control as the faceless evil. But there are some heart-thumping moments here. When Bashir leaves the Immigration centre for good, he and Kola share a fierce, snatched hug. Boundaries can be crossed and homes created in the most unlikely places.
Fierce, dangerous, nimble and physically unsettling. The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, which sees a man toss out his conscience and soar to terrifying heights, will make you feel sick. I felt a rumble in the pit of my stomach throughout Vicky Featherstone’s enthralling production; I cannot wait to go again.
Dennis Kelly has let the leash off his snarling writing and created a wild beast of a show. This play has chops! Kelly wrote the book for Matilda and there’s a wide-eyed cynicism about this work, as well as a glinting humour, that feels Dahl-esque. With the help of a friendly chorus of actors, we are drawn in close and then slowly squeezed until we can barely breathe.
Things kick off with a low-key and light-hearted introduction, which takes us whizzing through the early years of Gorge Mastromas (Tom Brooke, all bulging eyes and hollow cheeks). The cast sits on crappy plastic chairs and the years fly by, painted with great flourishes from Kelly. We listen as Gorge repeatedly chooses goodness over personal gain and paints his life grey. The blue night-sky backdrop is lit up by a few solitary stars, Tom Scutt’s intelligent set gently introducing the themes of fate, design and choice.
Featherstone shades this opening brilliantly, using the actor’s different accents and intonations to lend great colour to Kelly’s beautifully written opening gambit. The tone undulates constantly and fluidly. We laugh at Gorge’s fumbling attempts with the ladies, his struggles to impress at school and his passive acceptance of a mediocre life.
Then, one day, Gorge is presented with a way out. The set opens out into a damp squib of on office, with beige walls and washed out colleagues. Within this faded setting, Gorge is offered a chance to change; to join a private club full of life’s winners. All he has to do is lie, damn the consequences and never regret. Gorge accepts.
The production changes gear. The scenes become punchier, weirder and laced with threat. It is not that danger rumbles beneath the dialogue – that would be too obvious and too easy to adjust to. Instead, danger lurks around the corner, peaking in and waiting to pounce. The skin begins to tingle, as Gorge’s lust for success builds and builds, grabbing at everything, crushing anything and steadily, stealthily eating up his soul.
Tom Brooke is exceptionally good. By the end of the play, Gorge Mastromas has been eaten up by evil. He is a crust of a man. But the journey up to this point is taken with small, tiptoe steps. We watch Gorge become possessed by his own desire. It is frightening believable everything is – how reachable and logical every step Gorge takes is, despite the horror he enacts. There are such blasts of darkness from Gorge – moments of liquid evil that threaten to engulf. Despite this, Gorge is never out of reach. He is always human.
Even writing about it now, the stomach clenches. Once one realises the lengths Gorge will go, the scenes crackle even more ferociously, always on the verge of exploding. The cast plays each scene at face value, never anticipating the end point and allowing moments of great calm and humour along the way. Kate O’Flynn finds incredible lightness in her role as Gorge’s love interest, only embracing the depths of her sadness in the play’s dying moments.
Tom Scutt’s thoughtful set plays an important role, dancing teasingly about the edges of Kelly’s script. A red line motif builds throughout the production. At first this red line is contained within the set; an oddly glowing strip in Gorge’s hotel room. But as Gorge sheds his skin, money rising and morals falling over the decades, this red line – reminiscent of the stock market - rises with him. In the last scene, set in the present day, the red line has fallen and spilled out onto the stage; a devastating descent that has touched us all.
I’m not convinced about the ‘secret’ component of ‘Secret Theatre’ at the Lyric Hammersmith. Sure, it generates a lot of Twitter banter – but does it add much to the theatrical experience? It’s pretty telling that the bods at the Lyric have told the press it is now OK to reveal the secret. Was the secret, then, only necessary for a select few? I am going to reveal the secret behind Show 2, since it is impossible to review otherwise. If you don’t want the (somewhat pointless) secret revealed, then stop reading.
Right, so it’s Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The fact we don’t know this in advance has a limited impact. On a practical level, it means the critics don’t need to do any research. It also allows one to play ‘spot the show’ in the opening scene. I’ve never played this before and it’s fun. Ish. Otherwise, the ‘secret’ angle just feels like smoke and mirrors, which makes me wary. Sean Holmes has talked stirringly about wanting to create raw, honest, ugly, fiery, surprising theatre. That kind of theatre should be able to speak for itself – and certainly doesn’t require any laboured set up or press gimmick, distinct from the show itself.
Anyway, it’s not a huge deal. Let’s leave the secret stuff aside and concentrate on the production, which is played in a half-capacity theatre, draped in plastic (renovations are taking place). Despite all this, the Lyric signature style is firmly intact in Sean Holmes’ stark and curious production.
The aesthetic feels familiar; all strip lights, big white screens and colourful, defiantly incongruous props (Watermelon is used a lot and I have no idea why). Everything – the props, the acting style, the music – feels odd and jolting yet weirdly measured. There is a faintly mechanised yet unbalanced air to proceedings; as if the production is being controlled by a shoddily wired robot, on the verge of self-destruction.
The cast comes across as amazingly unburdened. It’s as if they have no idea of the weight of expectation that comes with this play. That Holmes and dramaturg Simon Stephens have managed to coax this type of freedom from their cast is something rare, important and impressive. The actors create new roles, completely their own. These left-field interpretations don’t always work but they do feel original, as if the cast has somehow been able to read the script without any knowledge of prior performances. The text also feels new and wildly altered. This is odd and interesting since, on further study, it turns out to be not hugely dissimilar from Williams’ original.
Nadia Albina’s Blanche sounds like she has never spoken a natural word in her life. She speaks at a consistently high pitch, as if she is afraid her real voice might give too much away. Albina was born without her right forearm and her physical appearance does, naturally, feed into her performance. There is a quietly thundering moment late on, when she utters this line: ‘Soft people have got to glimmer and glow.’ The personal history which hums behind that phrase is shattering.
Albina’s Blanche is also a little less theatrical than previous incarnations. She speaks in an English accent – as do most of the actors – which strips away some of the theatrical flamboyance from Williams’ script. There is a pared down quality to this whole production – not just the delivery, but also the emotions and visuals - which is really interesting but also deeply problematic.
The cooler atmosphere lends a curious feel to Stan’s violent outbursts. Sergo Vares is simply not the Stan that Williams envisioned; ‘Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes’. Vares is a physical performer and moves with a jaunty grace rather than threatening strides. When Stan’s outbursts come, they do not feel like a natural extension of his character – nor an inevitable consequence of an already volatile atmosphere. In more traditional productions of ‘Streetcar’, these violent explosions can feel like a theatrical flourish; glamorous and almost worthy of our applause. Here, the violence feels discordant and wrong.
This means we get some thrilling, isolated moments of shock. But this lack of innate violence and passion also neutralises Williams’ play. This production needs more fire in its belly. There isn’t that angry, burning build that glows and glows and eventually explodes, leaving us devastated. There also isn’t a lot of sexual spark to this production. When Stan and Stella (Adelle Leonce) wrap their limbs around each other, it feels more comforting than ferocious. Tennessee Williams without sexual tension just isn’t Williams. The final showdown between Blanche and Stan doesn’t really crackle and their sexless rage feels cold.
Ultimately, the cool style of Holmes’ show and the unquenchable passions of ‘Streetcar’ don’t really merge. We’re all gagging for the type of raw, urgent, unfettered and challenging theatre Holmes is calling for – but not at the cost of a classic play. This production isn’t quite it – but it is the first step of a crucial journey.
The Weather is a strange thing. Not weather itself, though it can feel so in the alternating cloud-breaks and scorching sun of Edinburgh, but TV weather forecasts. Nestled after the day’s bulletins, they present a kind of arbitrary looping news, though one loaded with significance for the British national character. We famously talk about the weather when we have nothing else to talk about, or nothing else we want to talk about. This discourse of meteorology offers the frequency for Little Bulb’s latest broadcast, which shrouds a state-of-the-nation satire in a fog bank of 1980s kitsch.
On its surface Squally Showers is an evocation of a decade, of Pebble Mill mornings and test card afternoons. Fred Talbot’s floating weather map makes elusive appearances, and the language of Pan Pipes, pastel-power dressing and ITV regional idents is beautifully enunciated. Any sense of nostalgia, however, is broken up by the stilted and stylised register of the performances and dialogue. This is a mediated version of the recent past, at times as fuzzy as a fifth generation VHS copy, and at others enacted in wildly exaggerated cliches that are the 1980s equivalent of Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy. It forces us to consider the past directly through the lens of the present, collapsing the attitudes and accidents we view into our own immediate frame of reference.
As usual with Little Bulb, the plot swims somewhere beneath the aesthetic, emerging in vignettes of hiring, firing, promotion and demotion within the organisation. There are also snatches of characters’ domestic lives: a work hard/play hard society where men are men and women negotiate the twisted version of gender equality bequeathed by Thatcherism.
The economic crisis is its most obvious theme, and the sense of despair or aimlessness a depression can create. The vocabulary of the weather forecast, of storms growing and passing, suggests a hopeful outlook, but the naivety of this is also undercut. The figure of a rubber-masked Thatcher cavorting in a whirlwind of banknotes is almost too weird to feel as thuddingly blunt as it sounds, and when performers begin to maraud the stage in wolf and zombie masks, the political symbology becomes harder to take home with you. We’re reminded that tooth and claw capitalism creeps cult-like into every aspect of the characters’ lives, and offered the image of a confused unicorn as a beacon of optimism. Whether the beast is intended as a symbol of true hope or the fantastical great white hope of a self-regulating market is unclear.
That self-belief that everything will turn out alright in the end, that storms can be weathered and sunny days will soon be here again feels pretty deflated by the collision between the then and now which Little Bulb have arranged. Squally Showers iconic moment may be one of its smallest, where weather girl Peg reaches her hand to the projected image of a weather system and caresses and cups its high and low pressure fronts like the curves of a lover’s body. There’s such tenderness and faith in something so arbitrary, as arbitrary and unbiddable as the stock market. No wonder it all went wrong.
Darker in tone and richer in content than Little Bulb’s earlier work, it’s also less complete, and while there’s a definite pleasure in letting go in their constantly suggestive cloud of bubbles, strands such as the prospect of amorous extraterrestrial contact feel under-explored. There are sections that could be tightened and others that could stand to be cut entirely. Squally Showers also struggles to end, and the point it makes about repetition itself becomes repetitive before the forecast is over.
When the ending finally arrives, its message is only ambiguously uplifting. It suggests that, for all of its evident greed and callousness, perhaps there was a bright side to the radical individualism and self-definition of the 1980s. Maybe its outward confidence and optimism offered something to shelter us against the storms that are currently overhead? History is cyclical, tyrants rise and fall, Thatcher dies, money showers down then dries like an August puddle. If you can’t change the weather, you can at least put up an umbrella.
The thought of sitting in a theatre watching a man balancing stones doesn’t exactly sound like a thrilling one. Bizarrely, this is the crux of Nick Steur’s Freeze!, which does far more intellectually than its premise would suggest. For though watching the act of creation is tense and dramatic in itself, its the accompanying text which makes this piece really interesting, interrogating the place of language and the making of art.
In the Demonstration Room at Summerhall, five polished mirrored cubes sit in a semi-circle. On top of Steur’s head is a small speaker, which he pushes to activate. The actual act of balancing doesn’t begin for a good five minutes, during which time we get a fascinating monologue which then continues throughout.
There’s something incredibly odd about experiencing a mute man talking to an audience through a disembodied voice. The reason he’s made this choice, apparently, is so he has ‘something to talk about’ and because he doesn’t ‘want to bore the language thinkers’ in the audience. It means that we get a running commentary, and though it could be interpreted as patronising the audience by analysing what is happening, it in fact makes interesting points about aesthetics and memory. The phrase ‘I like complex simplicity’ seems to sum up the show.
What’s so interesting about the rocks is that this is a real act (not a representation) which contains within it a genuine drama. The first time he manages to achieve a tower, it’s kind of impossible to believe it’s Freeze! an illusion, and there’s a few moments of disbelief. We are complicit in this act, too, remaining far more quiet and still than we would in other shows for fear of knocking them.over with a badly timed fidget.
Like L’Apres-midi d’un Foehn, Freeze! makes beauty out of banality. They both make you feel a strange other-worldly calm by putting fragility and solidity in opposition with one another. And then, just when you think order is achieved, chaos and destruction arrive, leaving the remnants of what was beautiful scattered on the floor.